On TV, Star Trek and Star Wars Now Cater Only to Franchise Synergy, Digital Necromancy

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On TV, <i>Star Trek</i> and <i>Star Wars</i> Now Cater Only to Franchise Synergy, Digital Necromancy

There is a ton of fiction out there, but only a comparatively few works support what you’d call “fandom,” the creation of a community that revolves around loving and being an expert in the long (long, long) history of some alternate world. Stuff like Harry Potter or any of its grittier knockoffs is designed around growing a fandom: Laying solid bricks of lore on which to build a world worth writing fan fiction about (and then, occasionally, suing those who do).

Star Wars and Star Trek were old when these other intellectual properties were young, and both are an order of magnitude deeper than almost any other. Few works have been as over-analyzed, picked apart, ret-conned, and reworked as much as America’s two banner science fiction worlds, which are both the singular, curious works of singular, curious men. And now, as both franchises grow beyond their original creators’ influences or intentions, their fandoms have truly never had more of everything they could possibly want out of these stories, no matter what particular niche in 50-or-so years of movies and shows strikes their fancy: You can lie on the couch and use your PlayStation controller to cue up TV episodes in which a holographic Captain Janeway wins a fistfight with a cyborg, or some inessential crew aboard a Starfleet vessel prank call Armus. If you like obscure characters like Cad Bane from the Clone Wars era of Star Wars but also want to see a young Luke Skywalker in his prime and Boba Fett ride a freaking rancor, you need watch just two episodes of The Book of Boba Fett.

If they wanted to, lovers of these franchises could easily watch nothing else: There will soon be five concurrent Star Trek television shows between Star Trek: Discovery, Picard, Star Trek: Prodigy, The Lower Decks, and the forthcoming prequel series Strange New Worlds, in accordance with a strategy of apparently trying to cater to every age-group at once. Star Wars has produced season after season of CGI cartoon shows, found some success with the occasionally quite creative Star Wars: Visions, and now has two (one and a half?) live action series in The Mandalorian and The Book of Boba Fett, with Obi-Wan Kenobi on the horizon.

And yet, as somebody who grew up on both of these expansive, interconnected stories and these colorful characters, it feels like somewhere, a single gnarled finger on a monkey’s paw has curled inward. Why, you may also be wondering, does it feel like the latest deluge of content (The Book of Boba Fett can be called nothing but “content”) and the promise for an ever-intensifying fire hose of more of it fail to impress? Besides the fact that some of it (like The Book of Boba Fett) is kinda bad?

Fear not! I watched way too much of these shows in order to find out.

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Seared into the memory of every Star Wars fan is the moment in the cantina (you know which cantina, on which planet, in which movie) when Obi-Wan pulls his lightsaber out and effortlessly severs the limb of some thug. (I am not looking the thug’s name up, but I’m sure you could. I’m sure somebody has written a novelette or short story about him). It’s a moment right out of Westerns and samurai flicks, one that establishes Kenobi as more dangerous than he appears, and demonstrates just why you don’t want to mix it up with somebody who has a laser sword. It’s a moment that is grounding the world in terms you understand while revealing character and doing something cool with VFX.

You can compare something like this to two scenes in an episode of The Book of Boba Fett to get to the heart of what rubs me the wrong away about the show. “Chapter 6” ends with two important scenes that set up the events of the finale. One character is visited by a stranger out of the desert, an alien dude with Lee Van Cleef’s glower, fashion sense, and quick draw aptitude, everything framed like you might see in a Sergio Leone joint. In another scene, the infant Grogu (you also know him as “Baby Yoda”) is given a choice right out of Lone Wolf and Cub, somewhat unsurprisingly: Choose the lightsaber and remain with a video game model of Luke Skywalker to learn the ways of the Jedi, or choose the gift Mando gave him and return to a life of attachment and getting to hang out with Pedro Pascal while he flies spaceships and kills dudes for money.

The difference is that in the first example with Kenobi, Star Wars is calling back to the works that inspired it, while the latter examples are Star Wars calling back to itself. The sneering bounty hunter alien is Cad Bane, a guy who has a long and thorny history with Boba Fett the character, but shares one scene on screen with Fett actor Temuera Morrison in the finale. To get the full context, you need to plant your ass and catch up on several seasons of more than one cartoon show. The lightsaber Luke offers Grogu is, of course, Yoda’s little green job from the movies, one of the things people have held up as The Thing That Was Wrong With The Prequels, and so the moment is overshadowed by both Weird CGI Luke and a couple scenes from movies that are now 20 years old.

Every episode of the Star Wars shows is full of moments like this, things that rely so heavily on the audience having watched every frame of everything that’s come before, such that anything new they have to offer doesn’t have room to breathe. It’s engineered to make you need to dedicate your time to understanding it. And then there are moments when it really seems like The Book of Boba Fett is blithely wasting your time in order to fill out its episode order and keep actors on contract, whether by extended sections of Amy Sedaris crabbing at droids and jawas (How has a show made me want less Amy Sedaris?!) or several scenes in which Mando goes through Space TSA to board an interplanetary flight and… nothing happens. When you make your one-man army dude disarm himself of his pile of weaponry, it’s supposed to be the precursor to a fight scene! Or a chase!! Or anything!!!

The current run of Trek shows can also feel as if they are interminably calling back to the franchise’s storied history, particularly The Lower Decks, which at its worst can feel like an extended The Next Generation riff, and at its best can seem like it’s trying to reexamine it (rather than rehash it). Star Trek: Prodigy’s first season does a better job of at least providing new places and situations for its young heroes to muddle through, but it, too, is guilty of digital necromancy.

In the midst of a stunningly well-animated show with some compelling character motivations, the episode “Kobayashi” tasks the “captain” of the Protostar, Dal (Brett Gray), with a classic Starfleet test on the ship’s holodeck. Of course the rest of his crew of human trafficking escapees (it is intense for a kids’ show!) are not interested in participating, so he instructs the computer to just provide him with a holographic crew. Enter the ghosts of James Doohan, Rene Auberjonois, and Leonard Nimoy. They’re joined by Nichelle Nichols, who is not dead but whose lines, like her deceased costars, were pulled from previous episodes, and is at the center of concerns over her conservatorship. Gates McFadden (Dr. Crusher from TNG) reprises her role with actual new lines. In Nichols’ case, it’s very close to being disrespectful, and you have to ask why it was a thing you’d put in a show for kids who likely lack a deep connection to these characters, if they have a connection at all.

The answer, just like with Yoda’s lightsaber or setting significant portions of two whole shows on Tattooine when there’s a literal galaxy out there you could be exploring, is that any new stuff these shows want to do must share space with the biggest directive their corporate owners have imposed on them: They need to make viewers want to watch more Star Wars and Star Trek by referencing more Star Wars and Star Trek, the same way picking up a Spider-Man comic is supposed to make you want to pick up an X-Men comic. Obviously that kind of mercenary sensibility has always been somewhere in both properties, which have both licensed enough toys and lunchboxes in their time to make a plastic Death Star with a Borg cube to fight it. It’s just that the text of both works themselves now seems focused on keeping the perpetual motion machine running, and on inducting new generations into binge watching all of it.

How can it keep running? What cost is running it going to incur? Mark Hamill is a mortal man, and you’d think if they insist on trotting out his iconic character at age 25 in perpetuity, that they’d recast the role. Instead they seem intent on cobbling him together with computers and a voice that is literally a robotic facsimile of his younger self, when Hamill himself could just do the voice. Obviously that doesn’t serve Disney’s corporate interests, either, having to compensate Hamill or cater to any desires he may have toward the portrayal of the character. Eventually, I’m sure they hope, the computers will get good enough that they can perform darkest Spockromancy, reviving Leonard Nimoy in appearance and voice to say all new lines rather than archival ones.

At their worst, these shows are keeping us stuck in the past, afraid to move beyond it, when the beauty of both properties is that they went new places, made new discoveries, changed our conceptions of what stories we can tell and how we can tell them, all guided by authorial visions that were personal rather than (wholly) corporate.

I like Star Trek and I love Star Wars, but as much as I do, I’ve never felt more desire for them to go more boldly to some galaxy farther away than they’ve yet shown us.



Kenneth Lowe must choose: The sword, or the ball. You can follow him on Twitter and read more at his blog.

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